Social Media as Catharsis

I’ve been going through some stuff.

For me, as for many men and women all over the world, every day is a battle, of varying degrees of violence (sometimes depending on the weather, but usually depending on the quantity of ‘goodness’ that I can recognise in the world), with the tag-team of anxiety and insecurity who sit, quite comfortably, alongside the devil on my shoulders.

But it’s okay, because I have Twitter and I have my blog.

Twitter is catharsis for me; it’s a safe space where I can air my personal grievances with the profession I adore, and so long as I don’t mention people or individuals by name, and I’m not spiteful, nobody gets hurt.

For me, that’s what wins the preferred debate of choice for English Writing exams everywhere:

‘Should social media be banned?’

I recognise all the problems with social media: it exposes kids to violence and sex and bullying, and, it’s a minefield as far as personal safety is concerned. If I had my way it’d be banned, were it not for one thing: the one thing that makes social media an absolute necessity for me, is the thought of all those quiet kids I grew up with, when I was at school, who, although never uttering a word throughout the five years of secondary school, would surprise me every night with their MSN messenger (look it up) status updates in which they lay bare their emotions: there were proclamations of love for people they never had a chance with; there were dark hints at suicide; there were verbal jabs thrown with defiance at bullies, and there were joyful explosions of emotional insight into lives which, were it not for social media, I’d assumed were devoid of any feeling whatsoever. Simply because these kids never actually spoke. 

Social media allows people to speak where otherwise they may feel unable to do so. Thanks to social media, people don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves anymore; they’re wearing them on their screens. And that’s a good thing. Because, when we talk about the things that hurt us or make us angry and when we talk about the things that make us feel good or make us tingle with excitement, we are expressing our humanity. Our human-ness. People stand up and listen to that. And we all want to be listened to.

For a number of personal reasons, I refuse to take anti-depressants. But, as an insight into some of the stuff I’m dealing with, here’s a few extracts from the endless amount of blog posts I write, which never get published, mainly because the act of writing about how I feel acts as catharsis. That is, I write down how I feel, and I feel better: 

Yesterday, a series of unfortunate events conspired to ensure that Twitter is no longer a safe space to vent about my problems. And that scares the shit out of me. Because, in a complete subversion of what is deemed noble and worthy in today’s Reality TV world, I’m not the kind of person who enjoys ‘telling it to their face’ or just ‘saying how I really feel.’ In fact, a childhood of more than ordinary amounts of violence means that even a raised voice makes my skin prickle, my hands sweat, and my heart beat faster than an angry wasp inside a jar.

This blog post, which I will publish, is a confession of my own weakness, but also a reminder: a reminder that even dickheads struggle and that the tendency for some to whine and moan on social media, whilst annoying, may be necessary. Please think about that.

Masculinity and Violence in Schools. 

There has been violence in my life.

Whilst there have been moments of violence of which I am undoubtedly ashamed, there have been a few moments of violence of which I am most certainly proud. The pride that I feel when recalling these moments, or when relating them to others, hinges on the fact that these moments of violence mirrored the social narrative of masculine violence imposed upon all men from birth: the narrative where the bad guy loses and the good guy wins. 

However, the moment of violence which I think about every single day, is the moment of violence where there was no violence. 

When she was three months old, I took my daughter for a walk. Holding her in my arms (‘real men’ eschew slings) I was caught off guard when I turned a corner and saw two men, in their early twenties, threatening an old man who had accidentally bumped into them as he posted a letter. Naturally, I intervened and told the blokes to leave the man alone. What I hadn’t counted on, was that the baby held in my arms, rendered any advantage I had over the blokes-in terms of sizeand general scariness- null and void. 

“Whatcha gonna do about it big ears?”

Turns out, I was going to do absolutely nothing about it. The feeling that stands out most vividly in the memory of the event is a prickliness. Literally, I felt my skin prickle. I went very warm, and then my armpits started to sweat. And I felt scared. Absolutely terrified. So, holding my baby in my arms, I turned, and walked away. Granted, I checked (when I was some distance away) to see if they’d left the man alone (and they had), but the simple fact was this: I walked away. I’d seen two twats threaten an old man and I just let it happen. I walked away.

This knowledge- the knowledge that I walked away- plagues me every day with a feeling of shame that hasn’t relented, despite the 9 months that have passed since the occurrence of the event. Because, despite my conscious attempts to repeatedly challenge and question outdated stereotypes of masculinity, the whole alpha male thing is a big part of who I am. And yet now, when I’m in the pub, or at the football, or talking with the lads, there’s always a part of my mind saying, “This ain’t you. You ain’t real. You walked away.”

However, though I think about this day, every day, there’s a reason the shame doesn’t eat me up and that is, I can rationalise it. The whole thing. Because, I am aware of the biological and social conditions imposed upon me from birth that lead me to feel this shame. 

Because of this knowledge, I know, deep down, that walking away, although it may make me feel ashamed, is not a shameful act. 

Last year, in Britain, 76% of violent crimes were committed by men. In schools, boys are three times more likely than girls to receive permanent exclusions and 19% of these exclusions are down to violent behaviour’s. In special schools that number is closer to 50%. 

Violence is a largely male issue.

Society primes men for battle: whether it be the toy soldiers or the camouflage duvet sets or the gangster rap or the metaphors employed by the back pages of the newspapers, society primes men to be violent.

Earlier on, I admitted to feeling pride in some of the violence which I mentioned had occurred in my life. Some of you may have been repulsed by this revelation-or, let’s be blunt- this bragging. But the fact is, I was showing off, and I am proud of these moments of violence because, in some of the circles in which I associate, stories of violence are impressions. For some of the people I know,  stories of kebab shop fights and schoolyard scuffles reek of honour and power and loyalty in much the same way as Homer’s Iliad does for the generations who have studied it. 

I understand the reasons I walked away: preservation. Preservation of the one person I love more than anything- my baby daughter. I realise my shame may seem immature to you, but still, there is not a hope in hell that I could ever let the boys down the pub know about the time I walked away.

It strikes me that in most schools, violence is dealt with reactively. That is, violence occurs and then it is sanctioned. There may be a reintegration meeting, or a ‘restorative conversation’, but even then, the focus is on feelings and emotions prior to-and after- the violence, rather than the difficult topic of the violence itself: “So Sam, didn’t it feel great to actually just smack someone who bullies you?” Never going to happen. 

I believe that schools need to start taking a proactive response to male violence. I believe that a systematic programme of study, designed, facilitated and led from a pastoral position of responsibility, that aims to make boys aware of the biological (not so much) and social (bloody loads) conditions that prime them for violence may go some way to giving our boys the strength and power it takes to protect themselves not just from the force of the fist, but from the sucker-punch of society. 

I recently spoke on the phone to someone from Great Men, a charity that recently featured in The Times newspaper under the headline, ‘Can you teach teenage boys to be decent young men?’ The charity goes into schools and speaks to boys about violence, sex, and that other topic people are so reluctant to talk to boys about: emotions. To me, this sounds great. Unfortunately, what with the project being in its early stages, reliable data on the effectiveness of the intervention is as of yet unavailable. 

It should work though, right? If I know how an engine works, I am more able to adjust and repair a faulty one. If I know how I work- as a male- if I know how biology and society seems determined for me to work, I am more able to adjust myself to avoid my own faults, one of which seems to be (76% remember) a predisposition towards violence. 

I envisage a pastorally directed system of Explanation, Reflection, and Expression (ERE): boys have an important part of their masculinity explained to them (testosterone myth; social selection theory; gender socialisation theory). Then, during reflection time, questions are asked that encourage boys to reflect on this topic: What do you think about the belief that there’s a hormone in you that makes you more likely to be violent than girls? Are you stronger than your hormones? What do you think about the fact that teachers at primary school have lower expectations of boys than girls? Finally, during the Expression phase, boys are encouraged to comment on any aspect of the day’s session.

Before I finish, I want to talk about walking away. When a boy walks away from a fight in Schools it’s usually ignored. After all, of some one walks away from a fight there’s been no fight and so teachers don’t hear about it. In the rare instances when teachers do hear about someone having walked away from a fight, we commend the boy for having done so. What I am sure we are absolutely not doing, is preparing those boys who walk away for the feelings of humiliation and shame that may arise out of having done so. 

Failure to live up to social expectations of masculinity- this expectation that men should be fighters, fighters who win- is having a devastating impact. 76% of suicides in Europe are committed by men. Because of this, we need to find the boys who walk away and we need to encourage them to talk about the fact that they have done so and we need to be straight with them: walking away won’t always (in my experience, rarely) make you feel like ‘the better man.’ A concentrated pastoral effort needs to go into encouraging boys to confront these feelings and deal with them.

The shame and anger that I feel, as a result of walking away from those two guys attacking the old man, are wounds. They are wounds that bleed and the blood from these wounds covers a little part of my day, every day. 

But this is not my fault, this shame. It is the fault of outdated social expectations. And, because of this, I walk on.

Bloody, but unbowed. 

The Greatest Teaching Moment of my Life

Sir. I know sometimes I mess around. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn. Please keep trying with me. 

So reads the scribbled note that was pushed under the door of my office, one week into starting my new job. The author of this note  wasn’t lying. His name is Aaron, he’s in Year 8,  and, when he wants to, he can mess around. Last term, he wasn’t having any of it. It was like he’d given up.

It was with some trepidation then, that for Aaron’s class, I began this half term by ditching my planned unit on Poetry from Other Cultures (Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!), opting instead for a Poetry by Heart unit I’ve just started designing in preparation for next September. The unit aims to develop students ability to memorise information and is focused wholly on William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. The plan is that the whole class will know the whole poem off by heart within 4 weeks.

Aaron was fascinated by the story behind the poem- the poet’s impoverished childhood and struggle with tuberculosis; Mandela’s use of the poem to keep him sane and focused during his 27 year incarceration on Robben Island. After the first lesson, Aaron took the poem home so he could learn more. As did his best friend, Jacob. 

And then this happened…

Yesterday, during form time, I found Aaron and Jacob in the library. They normally come to me to read during this time but I told them the Head teacher had just had a pop about the slovenly state of my classroom (fully justified- I care little for classroom displays and my room is reflective of that) and asked if they’d come and help me tidy it up. They obliged, but asked if they could recite Invictus to me and an amazing TA who was also in the library, first. And so, I watched as both Aaron and Jacob, the ‘cheeky chappies’ with endless codes after their names on endless excel spread sheets, recited, word perfectly, the first three stanzas of Invictus. The TA and I were stunned but so was Lucas. Lucas? 

Lucas, it’s fair to say, is a bit like Aaron and Jacob. A nice boy for whom education and being quiet and focused in class, isn’t always the number one priority. I don’t teach Lucas, but I knew his name within a day of starting at my new school. He’s one of those kids.

“Sir, can you teach me that poem too?”

Of course I could, I told him, and so Aaron, Jacob, and now Lucas, trudged over to my classroom to tidy up and recite Victorian poetry. 

As we tidied up my classroom, Aaron, Jacob and I played a game. We’d recite alternate words of the poem. Like so:

Aaron: “Out”

Me: “Of”

Jacob: “The”

Aaron: “Night”

Me: “That”

And so on. Anyway, Lucas is sitting there, watching all this, utterly impressed. I’d go as far to say enchanted. Then, he rushes out of the room. Within a few seconds, he’s back, sheepishly pushing his English book under my nose. 

“I wrote a poem sir. Can you read it?”

And this is the where the best moment of my teaching career happens. It’s etched on my brain now; I can’t forget it. Before I go on, you should know that Lucas struggles big time with English. He really struggles. But, thanks to the amazing work of the TA I mentioned earlier, and an amazing English teacher who is far more patient than I could ever hope to be, he can get stuff done.

Anyway, here’s the moment. I’ll write it in italics and if you could just play some inspirational music, preferably of the classical variety, in your mind as you read it, that’d be great:

I look down at the page and Lucas’ poem runs thus: 

People enjoying the evening,

Just wanting to enjoy the beautiful bridge.

Then, a squeal of rubber tyres on Tarmac destroys everything,

Men get out and stab people in the back,

Why can’t people just enjoy their lives?’

I’m welling up, but I almost begin to cry as I look up from my reading and see this:

Jacob painstakingly trying to align my tables so that they’re straight, his lips murmuring the words of Invictus as he does so.

Aaron, now sat down, pouring over the fourth and final stanza of the poem, closing his eyes as he attempts to memorise it.

Lucas’ face, looking up at me in earnest, desperate to know what I think of his poem. 

That was the greatest moment of my teaching career. That snapshot just there: Lucas’ poem, Jacob’s efforts to both help me and impress me, and Aaron’s absolute determination to crack that poem.

Later that day, as I was calling the parents of these kids, to tell them how impressed I was, an email popped up on my screen, from the head:

‘Dear Mr Pinkett.

I just thought I’d let you know that after school today, as I was having a meeting with the CEO of the academy chain, Aaron in Year 8 barged into my office and recited the whole of Invictus to us both. It was word perfect and it was beautiful. It’s made my week.’

For me, the most impressive thing, and the thing that makes me proud, isn’t that Aaron remembers the poem. It’s the fact that he’s proud of remembering the poem.

On paper, Aaron isn’t the first kid you’d think of when asked to name a kid who is passionate about learning poetry off by heart. Which, I guess, is fitting. Because, as Aaron showed me this week, what does paper mean, when you have heart? 

Selling Resources (No Clickbait)

Yesterday I waded into the ‘Selling Resources’ discussion and, as tends to happen with me, I lacked the articulacy and the eloquence to defend my stance as people criticised my viewpoint, all of which left me feeling a bit shite. Here’s an attempt at defending myself. 

Here’s what happened.

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to James Theo’s article, which I said was excellent. I then posted a follow up article, written by me, which I said was a rejoinder to James’ argument. His argument, not his original article.

Having re-read my article, it makes me cringe slightly. It’s poorly written, too hypothetical and perhaps just a tad sentimental. However, it’s a personal choice  of mine, to always keep the blog posts I’ve written as they were originally written: it is with joy that I compare early blogs from my favourite bloggers, with their more recent posts: the difference in tone, style, and philosophy is a powerful mapping of a person’s intellectual and stylistic development. 

What I’d like to do here, is restate my stance on the selling resources debate as clearly as I am able, to clear up any misunderstandings, but also to address the commonly held view that I am simply being deliberately provocative.

Here it is:

  1. I’ve read James Theo’s blog regarding the selling of resources, and I stand by his viewpoints. I agree with every single point he makes.
  2. I’m particularly outraged at the fact people are selling other people’s resources as their own, and making money from this. 
  3. And yet, in spite of all this, I still think selling resources is okay. 
  4. The reason I think selling resources is okay, and it’s the reason that overrides all of the points James Theo makes in his blog post is a simple one:

For some people who need it, it’s an easy way to make money. 

A friend of mine is a single parent teacher. She’s crippled by depression, mainly because she struggles to pay rent, and she’s putting two kids through University. This friend would never sell resources online. She’s ideologically opposed to the whole thing. And yet, would I begrudge her selling a few PowerPoints for a few quid just to ease the financial burden I know she feels? Of course not. In fact, I wish she’d do it. 

A tweet in which I stated that the problem was with the buyers (whom I referred to as ‘stupid’ later on) also incurred some wrath in some quarters. I was wrong to call them ‘stupid’ and I apologise for any offence caused. However, I’d like to explain my thinking on this:

Firstly, I’ve always been sceptical of teachers selling resources. I once wrote this. The reason I’m against it is, is that in my experience (my own personal experience-nothing else) the teaching that relies on other people’s resources, is the worst kind of teaching. To those who think I’m wrong on this, I’d ask you to think on this: you somehow find out that one of your own child’s teachers spends every single lesson teaching lessons they have gleaned and paid for from the web. They are delivered, as I’ve always seen lessons borrowed from elsewhere to be delivered: with a monotonous lack of confidence. Who are you angry with? The sellers? Or the buyer? For me, it’s the buyer every time. How dare they treat my child- and my profession- with so little respect.

I hope this has clarified my thinking on the issue- it certainly has for me. However, I accept that my thinking is as liable to change as anybody’s. And if it does change, you’ll know about it, rest assured. 

Blogs about Boys

Recently, a few people have asked that I compile a list of all the posts I’ve written on the topic of boys and masculinity in school. 

So here it is.

Before you read, please note that what you see here is a journey. My thoughts on gender are constantly evolving, changing and developing as I get older, as I read more, and as my thinking is challenged. 

1. Balance for Boys

In which I express my concern for a ‘hyper-feminised’ curriculum that serves to alienate boys. 

2. An Insight into the Male Experience

In which I detail the fact that for a lot of boys, walking away from a fight just isn’t good enough.

3. Pervy Boys

In which I express concern for the language used to discuss boys’ awkward, pubescent behaviour

4. 8 Mistakes about Boys in English

In which I outline 8 mistakes that English teachers commit when teaching English to boys.

5. Dear Boys

In which I write an open letter to boys, reminding them of how to behave, but also how they should expect others to behave towards them.

6. Man-Flu

In which I criticise people’s tendency to trivialise male illness.

7. Boys and Sexualised Language

In which I implore teachers to be severe in their dealings with boys who use sexualised language

8. Questioning Masculinity 

In which I implore teachers to question the way they deal with the ‘masculinity crisis’.

9. Rethinking Testosterone.

In which I renege on some of my earlier thoughts regarding testosterone’s influence on male behaviour. 

10. Masculinity and Violence in Schools

In which I propose a proactive approach to male violence in schools. 

Rethinking Testosterone 

At a recent talk, which can be accessed here, I explained that testosterone went some -but only some- way to explaining the reason that 95% of prisoners in U.K prisons are male. Testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks, and more aggressive I explained. 

Having just finished Cordelia Fine’s excellent Testosterone Rex, it seems that I may have been overstating testosterone’s role in male aggression and greater predilection for risk. 

As Fine explains eloquently, with humour, and in considerable detail in her book, the role of testosterone in influencing male behaviour is potentially far lesser than we have been led to believe. 

Here’s a summary of three of Fine’s more interesting points.

1. Testosterone and Risk 

The assertion that testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks is flawed at a fundamental level, purely because the majority of studies on this area, are gender-biased themselves. That is, the risks posed to male and female participants in risk studies – ‘Would you do a sky dive?’; ‘How much would you be willing to bet on such and such a game?’; ‘Would you have unprotected sex’ – are biased in favour of men. That is, they relate to experiences more commonly experienced by men as a result of gender socialisation. For example, society encourages men to take part in elaborate displays of machismo such as jumping out of metal objects thousands of feet high in the air; men are also more likely to be found sweating in betting shops and, because men are not troubled with the burden of carrying an actual human being inside them for 9 months,  unprotected sex is far less risky for a man.

Other studies looking at the behaviour of risky individuals have shown that human tendency towards risk does not stretch across all areas of an individual’s life. For example, a stock broker may be quite content to risk huge amounts of money on brokering a deal, but when it comes to riding a bike, they won’t do so without being wrapped in thirty layers of bubble wrap. Similarly, a BMX cyclist may be quite content to spend all day back flipping off their BMX in an array of dangerous situations, but when it comes to finance, they’re loathe to spend a penny in case the purchase doesn’t ‘pay-off’.

Finally, studies are showing that human tendency towards risk is context based. For example, studies in China show that women are every bit as risky as men so long as they aren’t aware of being observed. In the same study men became more risky in the presence of an observer.

The fact is, risk is a slippery and intangible topic and as such, it’s very difficult to say that tendency towards risk is a masculine behaviour created by testosterone. 

2. Testosterone’s Role 

Fine points out that testosterone’s role in guiding the body’s biological and behavioural processes is simply the most easily measurable amongst a whole host of other, more difficult to measure, processes such as: 

the conversion (of testosterone) to oestrogen, how much aromatise is around to make that happen, the amount of oestrogen produced by the brain itself, the number, and nature of androgen and oestrogen receptors, where they are located, their sensitivity…(pg.136)

All this means that actually, ‘the absolute testosterone level in the blood or saliva is likely to be an extremely crude guide to testosterone’s effect on the brain.’

As if this wasn’t enough to cast some shade on the long held belief that testosterone acts as a kind of hormonal tyrant, leading men into all sorts of danger and criminality,    there is increasing evidence to show that hormones don’t actually cause behaviour; rather, they simply make a behavioural response to an external stimulus more or less likely depending on wider social context. Whilst Fine doesn’t quote any human studies, she does make reference to a number of animal studies on Testosterone such as one in which male rhesus monkeys, were given a testosterone suppressant: the sexual behaviour of the highest ranking males was not affected by testosterone suppression, whilst those of lower ranking males was. All of which points to the fact that social context has greater impact than testosterone.

3. Testosterone and Behaviour: a role reversal?

Although the widely held view is that testosterone influences social behaviour, some studies have actually shown that social behaviour influences testosterone levels. For example, in humans, becoming a father will lower testosterone in men. However, the extent to which levels of testosterone are lowered depend on context. Tribes where paternal care was the norm saw greater reduction in testosterone levels than in tribes where paternal care was minimal. 

Another fascinating study gave male participants a fake baby to look after. For some men, the babies were programmed to cry persistently irrespective of the care given to it by the participants. Participants who had the crying babies had an increase of testosterone whilst those whose baby stopped crying when attended to, saw a drop in testosterone levels. All this is to say that testoserone is controlled and influenced by external stimuli ( in this case a crying baby), rather than, as one might expect, testosterone had an impact on these men’s ability to care for a child. 

Another study, conducted by the same researchers, showed that a role play situation in which both men and women were asked to enact power by firing someone, had no impact on male’s testosterone levels but significantly increased it on women. 

What does this mean for teachers?

Testosterone is a complicated beast. The view that males are victims of their hormonal urges cannot be taken seriously. Boys’ aggression and tendency to risky behaviour’s (misbehaving) cannot be put down to testosterone. As teachers we should take comfort in this fact: after all, arguably, it is easier to reverse social behaviours than it is to reverse the effects of thousands of years of evolutionary biology. 

By the time students reach Secondary school, the damaging effects of gender socialisation have most likely taken place and schools must take a directed and concerted effort at breaking down gender barriers that have been 11 years in the making.

At primary level, teachers need to be aware of the sketchy research base on testosterone and actively do what they can to ensure that misconceptions about the biology of boys and girls doesn’t impact on teachers’ perception- and therefore the way they encourage them to behave- of boys and girls.

In June, I’ll be talking about Violence and Boys, and what I think schools can do to tackle this problem, at TeachMeet Herts (#TMHerts). Once that’s done, I’ll blog about my proposed solution to the problem. 

Works Cited: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine.